The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (tr. Jordan Stump)

Dominique Fabre is a contemporary French novelist whose work focuses on the lives of individuals on the fringes of society, ordinary people just trying to get by as best they can. First published in France in 2005, The Waitress Was New was the first of his books to be translated into English.

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The novella is narrated by Pierre, a fifty-six-year-old barman who works in Le Cercle, a café-bar in the Hauts-du-Seine suburbs of Paris. We follow Pierre over the course of a few days as he works at Le Cercle, going about his business and tending to customers as they pass through the café.

I shook hands with a few regulars I’d got to know over the years without really trying to. They’re here, they come in for a drink, a bite to eat, they read the bar’s newspaper. They never forget what they are, or all the things they have to do, but for a few minutes, maybe an hour or two, they put themselves between parentheses, and I bear the name of that thing in their lives. (pgs. 31-32)

Pierre is a seasoned veteran, a career bartender. He has worked in bars across the Hauts-du-Seine département for most of his working life. Le Cercle has been his home-from-home for the past eight years. As such, he is sensitive, diplomatic and discreet when dealing with customers, always willing to lend an ear when someone wants to talk or offload about their lives. Equally, he seems to know instinctively when someone wants to be left in peace. Perhaps most importantly of all, he takes care never to keep a customer waiting for their bill when they’re ready to go – after all, his customers have their own lives to lead.

During the course of the novella, we see some of Pierre’s regulars, the people who flit in and out of his life on a frequent basis. Here’s one of those people, a woman who comes to the café most mornings. I couldn’t help but wonder about her life, perhaps Pierre does too.

She always used to order a cup of coffee with a little eye-opener on the side, but a few months earlier she’d got a new hairstyle, cut short and dyed blonde, and she’d given up on the calvados. I’d never seen her there with a guy, maybe there wasn’t one? I liked her better before, even if she seemed a little more worn. I thought she looked pretty good this way, but in my head she was still the woman who drank a couple of calvas before lighting her first cigarette of the day and heading off to the Asnières station for the train. She’s one of the people I know, just because of my job. Without really meaning to be, we’re kind of alike. But we keep to ourselves, we say hello and goodbye, and that’s it. Why not in the end? (pg. 76)

A few things happen while we are in the company of Pierre. The café’s boss, Henri, a married man in his early forties, disappears, leaving Pierre, the new waitress, Madeleine, and the cook, Amédée, to run the place in his absence. Le Cercle’s regular waitress, Sabrina, has called in sick, and there are rumours that she is having an affair with Henri…at least that seems to be the assumption. The boss’s wife, Isabelle, lives in an apartment above the restaurant, and so she draws on Pierre for a little moral support and reassurance now and again. There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’ll leave you to discover the rest for yourselves should you decide to read the book.

The Waitress is not a plot-driven novel; instead, the focus is on Pierre’s interior life, his thoughts and reflections, his concerns and expectations for the future. At various points in the book, Pierre touches on events in his past, and so we get to hear a little of his backstory. Many years ago, Pierre was married, but it didn’t work out; now he seems resigned to life as a bachelor, reasonably content to live alone, a situation that appears to suit him best. Here’s Pierre as he thinks back to his last girlfriend, Jacqueline, whom he broke up with some three years ago.

The last time I was part of a couple I lived in a new building, a one-bedroom apartment with all the amenities, and a built-in kitchen. We even had underground parking. But I never felt at home there. The woman’s name was Jacqueline Serradura, and for her it was a kind of triumph to be renting an apartment like that, we had all sorts of differences of that type. Still, we tried, her especially, I think. I just turned out not to be right for her. Or maybe our time was already up, and we just didn’t know it? And there were a bunch of other stupid little things that came between us. We had trouble understanding each other, we really should have tried harder. But as time went by those differences got to me, till I just couldn’t take them anymore. I tried, though. At least I think I did. (pgs. 61-62)

The Waitress Was New is a quiet, introspective novella. Fabre perfectly captures the sense of dignity and humanity in Pierre’s character as he goes about his day-to-day life. The tone is melancholy, especially in the passages where Pierre reflects on the loneliness and uncertainty that can come as one gets older. For such a slim book – 110 pages in total – I found The Waitress surprisingly moving. It’s a story that would suit lovers of low-key, understated, character-driven fiction. A little gem.

I first read about Dominque Fabre on Guy’s blog, where you’ll find his review of this book together with a post on another of the author’s novels, Guys Like Me.

The Waitress Was New is published by Archipelago Books. Source: personal copy.

37 thoughts on “The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre (tr. Jordan Stump)

  1. gertloveday

    This seems to be a Fabre character type, the resigned bachelor with that unassuming honesty about himself and a generalised puzzlement about others, though he observes so much. It’s not an easy thing, to make this point of view and this voice such an interesting one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s very subtle, isn’t it? In the hands of a lesser writer, it could come across as feeling a bit slight, but that’s not the case here. You’re absolutely spot-on in your description of the protagonist, he seems so quiet and self-effacing, and yet there’s so much going on inside his mind. Fabre really captures his thoughts and concerns perfectly. Have you read this one, Gert? (I recall you reviewing Guys Like Me a while back, but not this one.)

      Reply
      1. gertloveday

        I’ve read Guys Like Me and liked it a lot but not reviewed it. I’m not sure about this one- it does seem very much the same character and I wonder if it would offer anything that GLM didn’t.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I was sure I’d seen a review from you…perhaps it came up in the discussion at some point! Yes, Fabre’s protagonists do seem to fit this particular mould, Even so, I may well read Guys Like Me because I liked this one very much. Familiarity can be comforting at times. :)

          Reply
  2. lonesomereadereric

    i imagine this is the sort of book I might get bored or frustrated with if I wasn’t in the right mood, but might feel wholly involved in if I am looking for quiet reflection. I’m not sure I would be willing to risk it if it were hundreds of pages but as its so brief I think I’d really enjoy it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Frame of mind is so important when it comes to reading, isn’t it? I can think of a few books that didn’t work for me the first time around simply because I wasn’t in the right mood when I picked them up. Usually, I try again to see if it might be a question of timing or mindset – sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t!

      As for the Fabre, it’s well worth a look. One of the reasons it works so effectively is the brevity of the story – any longer and I suspect it would start to lose its power. I found it quite affecting for such a short novella.

      Reply
  3. heavenali

    Great review, I love the sound of this. I love quiet little novels about people who could so easily be the people you see walking around any city at any time. I think I am going to have to buy this. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali…and you’re very welcome. It’s one of the joys of blogging, isn’t it? Discovering small, under-the-radar books we might not otherwise hear about. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comments about it being the story of someone you might see walking around any city at any point in time., There is an ‘everyman’ quality and authenticity to Pierre that makes him so endearing. I really hope you enjoy it if you take the plunge.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Blimey, £12 is pretty expensive for what could be considered an extended short story, albeit a very good one. The physical book is very nicely produced, but even so… I think I paid about £5 or £6 for mine as I managed to find a second-hand copy online. Maybe the price will come down at some point – it’s worth keep an eye out.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I like this type of novel too. And you’re right, it’s all in the observation, those little details that make the character and his or her thoughts ring true. I really connected with Pierre, possibly because I recognised something of myself in his nature.

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    Of the two, I preferred Guys Like Me (even though the author overdid the ‘guys like me’ refrain). Thanks for the mention. It would be nice to see more of this author’s work in translation.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Guy. But really I should be thanking you as I doubt whether I would have come across this author had you not reviewed his books over at yours. GLM is definitely on the list, and it’s nice to know that it was your favourite of the two – it means I’ve got something good to look forward to.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui. Sounds very subtle and effective – character driven is fine for me if I’m in the right mood!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Yes, it’s very subtle and understated. Possibly too low-key for some readers, but I like this type of fiction every now and again. Frame of mind is everything with a book like this – on another day, I might have reacted differently to it, but luckily it hit the spot on this occasion!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Another fan of Guys Like Me, that’s great. I’m sure I’ll pick it up at some point. Based on Gert’s comments and the other reviews I’ve read, it sounds as though this particular character type is Fabre’s forte. I hope you enjoy this one, Melissa – I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
  6. Jonathan

    That’s funny, I was just trying to think of the author’s name yesterday. I remembered Guy’s reviews of GLM and this book and thought it would be just the sort of book I was in the mood for reading. They’re expensive new but I’ll probably take a punt on GLM. I really liked the quotes in your review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How timely! That’s a good call as it sounds as though GLM is the stronger of the two. I’m pretty keen to read it myself especially given how much I enjoyed this one. There is something very gentle and understated about Fabre’s writing, and yet it’s quietly compelling too. Quite hard to articulate, but I found it surprisingly meaningful and insightful for such a slim book.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Books which deal with the ordinary can be just as moving as books which deal with the extraordinary. Do you think this is the kind of novella Peirene would publish?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They can indeed. In this case, I think the story is all the more compelling because Fabre’s style complements the narrative perfectly. It could be a Peirene novella, but I wonder if it’s too understated for them? Several of their books strike me as being unsettling or shocking in some way, or at least that’s my impression based on the ones I’ve read in the last two or three years. Maybe I’m being a little unfair there as I’ve yet to try some of their earlier titles…

      Reply
  8. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    As think I have mentioned before, I am liking these types of books more and more.

    As someone who worked in restaurants for a while when I was younger, the setting of this one also sounds interesting to me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. The café-bar scenes are nicely handled – I could just picture the setting in my mind’s eye. The book gives a real flavour of the interaction between Pierre and his customer, so in some ways you feel as though you’re there alongside him. You might enjoy this one, especially given your previous experience of working in restaurants. It’s a good little palate cleanser.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome, Claire. I always like to include a few quotes to give a feel for the mood and style. I could imagine it as a film, too – a low-key, indie number with someone like Daniel Auteuil in the role of Pierre.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s good. I’d like to try Guys Like Me next. Guy’s posts stuck in my mind as well – I doubt whether I would have come across Fabre without those reviews.

      Reply
  10. Max Cairnduff

    I already have this one noted from Guy’s review, but it’s good to see you take to it so much as well. Definitely one for my to be read pile. To be honest, it’s only how expensive it currently is that’s stopped me already buying it, the quotes are great and stylistically it sounds very well done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      As per usual, Guy was right on the money on this one. I was drawn to it by his description of the lead character – well, that plus the book’s cover, an image which perfectly captures Pierre’s demeanour. All in all, it’s a satisfying little story. I’m surprised the kindle edition is so expensive though: £11.39 – that’s a lot for a short novella! I think I paid £5 or £6 for a secondhand copy of the book (incl. postage).

      Reply

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